Tuesday 5 December 2017

"Of course I have a penchant for the unpleasant" - An interview with Matt Presley

I'm a big fan of MD Presley's writing and mention his blog here on a fairly frequent basis. After being given a chance to beta read The Imbued Lockblade, the recently released sequel to The Woven Ring, I decided to interview him and get a better glimpse into his mindset...

PL: What was the inspiration behind The Woven Ring?

MP: Well, that's easy enough to answer: Avatar, The Last Airbender; Ken Burn's Civil War documentary; and the first season of True Detective. Last Airbender was sort of a mental exercise to see if I could create a world half as awesome, which I hope I succeeded in (being half as awesome that is). I wanted to do a steampunk/ weird west version of the Breath conceit, but it never worked out. But then I watched the series on the Civil War and I now had a context to go with my setting. And though I borrow quite a bit from the non-linear aspect of True Detective, what I really wanted at the onset was the relentlessly nihilistic sense of tone. I hadn't heard the term "grimdark" when I started writing, but that what I was aiming for.

So basically, I wanted to make a world as bright and vibrant as a kid's TV show and then gloom it all up with a terrible civil war to chip away at the reader's soul. 

PL: *Quickly googles True Detective* I'd never really considered the book in that sense before but now you say it, it makes total sense. How long had you been working with the Breath conceit before seeing the documentary? And how long did you spend mapping out the setting after coming up with it?

MP: I can honestly say I'm glad you asked that since it forced me to go back through all my notes (ie ctrl-F for "Ayr" and "Marta"). Turns out she showed up with the idea and name of Ayr (which, in hindsight, I think sounds stupid now) in 2010. I did a bad treatment for it around then that was less magic and more steampunk for a potential comic (my screenwriting manager at the time had some connections). I also found this note to myself from 2011 that amuses me to no end now: 

"Fantasy itself has a stigma attached to it unless it’s LOTR itself, which is probably why urban fantasy is seeing such an uptick as of late:  If you marry [fantasy] with something to make it more palatable then you’ve got a winning lottery ticket. 

Which is kind of funny that I would want to work with Ayr since it does masquerade as high fantasy.  I’m probably the only person who’s going to see it as historical/ civil waresque (is that a genre?), so it’s probably a losing combination.  But I’m enthused about it, which is more than I can say about anything else."

Looking through my notes some more, Ayr doesn't reappear until 2014 when my producers went radio silent for a while and I decided to dust off Ayr after watching the Civil War documentary. Not kidding, but that day was my first mention of Breath, which developed into the Blessed within a few paragraphs (I called them mutants at the time). I went to work on my bible for the series, and completed the world/ magic in about a week. The characters took another week, it looks like. At that point my producers got back in touch and I didn't work on Ayr again for another month, at which point I out hashed out the plot for two more weeks in the bible before getting to work on the rough draft.

And I know that answer was probably terribly boring for anyone reading it, but was a great walk down memory lane for me. Thank God for keeping notes. 

PL: Hey, I like reading about process, and so too presumably does anyone tuning into these interviews. Process is how writers keep making great stories after all. And speaking of process, you mentioned your bible - what goes in and what's the best thing about having it?

MP: Being as that all authors consider their works to be on par with religious institutions (or at least should inspire a religious experience in the audience), the bible indeed needs to be the word of god in that it's canonical and complete so there won't be any misunderstandings among the adherents further down the line. That's what leads to sectarian violence among fans after all. And plot holes. 

Honestly, I don't know which one is worse. 

And now that all that pretension and delusions of grandeur are out of the way, I try and put any and everything in there, starting with theme and pitch, then world rules, main characters + backstories, then finally the plot. And since I'm a strong proponent of structure and a plot road map, I made it a point to hit all the major beats for all four books ahead of time. That's not to say I don't take some unexpected detours and pit stops along the way, but I know my basic route and exactly where I'm going to end up.

When the series is all said and done, I'm considering posting my original bible, then the final one (which is about 50 pages longer) for all three of the people who would be interested in it. 

Which gets back to the religious connotations to the bible: I firmly believe it to be a living document that gets added to along the journey. Plot points have definitely morphed and spontaneously generated, as well as new aspects to the world as they organically appear in the writing process. And, by way of advice to anyone writing their own bible, make sure to list out all your minor characters with a note as to how they pertain to the main characters/ plot. And WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. Because nothing is more teeth-grindingly aggravating than trying to remember if you mentioned a minor character's hair/eye color and then having to go back and scour every appearance in your first book for that exceedingly trivial detail. 

I speak, of course, hypothetically here.

PL: All three, huh? Sounds like you need more readers. Lets fix that. What's the scene in The Imbued Lockblade that you're proudest of, the one that you think is going to hook the most new fans?

MP: Man, that's a tough one. The story's so interconnected over the four books, it's hard to pick one scene to exist in a vacuum for new readers. People really seemed to prefer Luca to Marta, and I do have a seminal/ defining moment from his life right off the bat that hopefully will please team Luca. But no, the series is my concept album in that there are no real singles meant for radio play. Because only sellout bands get played on the radio. Me, I'm so intentionally obtuse only the hardcore snobs even know who I am, and they only liked the Aphex Twin remixes of my first EP.  

All joking aside, I come from the opposite opinion in that I'm afraid people are going to read my prologue and put the book down for good. It's not a pleasant scene to read any more than it was to write.   
The Imbued Lockblade: It starts as it means to go on

PL: You kidding? That scene is awesome. Maybe not pleasant, but powerful. Well, I guess some will put it down though. That happens to everyone.

Anyway, you mentioned that people tend to prefer Luca. Do you have a favourite character in this? Or one you're particularly proud of the idea for?

MP: I forget that, at the moment of this interview, you're the only other person who's ever read book two. Well thank you, that gave me a bit more confidence in my choice.

As to favo(u)rite characters, I like them all well enough. Each one has their strengths which it's easy to like them for, and their weaknesses that it's easy to be disappointed in them for. And, I hope this isn't spoiler territory, but they're going to be at cross purposes over the course of their journey because that's where conflict/ drama comes from. And, to me at least, the best stories are the ones where you want every character to succeed, even when they're all aiming for diametrically opposed goals. 

With that in mind, I've always had a soft spot for villains, so Carmichael, Graff and Bernice really speak to me as a person. Yes, they're terrible human beings, but there's still something inherently human to them that I like. 

PL: Bwahaha. Today, I am unique!

Soft spot for villains, relentlessly nihilistic sense of tone... do you think you have an inclination for telling stories that spend a lot of time visiting the Dark Side? If so, why? Or why this series if you don't naturally have that inclination? 

MP: Of course I have a penchant for the unpleasant. The Dark Side's what adds drama to the story. Otherwise you'd just have magical elves riding unicorns around saying how ecstatic they are that the rainbow up ahead is extra bright today. And there'd probably be loads of exclamation points at the end of each sentence to prove how sincere they are!!!

That said, one should use The Dark Side (TDS) when TDS is appropriate for the specific story one wants to tell. Since its inception, this story was a very bleak one, so I employ bleak themes/ situations/ characters. But once Sol's Harvest is over, I really want to tackle something light(er) and episodic just so I don't have to worry about canon, continuity, and crying for a few months. I know authors are supposed to write to their brand and everything, but that's rather pigeon-holling (totally a word!!!) when it comes to being constrained by what you've created in the past. Ian Fleming did write James Bond and all, but he also gave us Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

So yeah, I'm thinking a fun samurais in space, YA version of The Invisibles mixed with The Books of Magic, or a pop deconstruction of vampires stand-alone novel to cleanse the ol' writerly palette once I get all this grimdark out of my system.  

Because, man, being grim all the time is almost as tough as being so damned dark. 

PL: I, erm... want a co-writer for YA Invisibles? :P

Since you mentioned brand, I'd like to ask you about your experiences as a self-published author. Do you ever find the commercial side of things impinging on the creative process? And what's been your biggest take-away from trying to get you and your brand noticed as a SP author so far?

MP: Ugh, the commercial side. I have a strong distaste for social media, as in I've avoided it for 10+ years. Unfortunately, that's not something you can do as a SP author, and suddenly you (meaning me) find yourself doing an hour of audience outreach on social media channels everyday, which is in addition to the several hours worth of blogs you need to do per week. Which is in addition to the actual writing of books and basic stuff like the day job, eating and sleeping (let alone reading other books). So yeah, the commercial side does get in the way on occasion. 

That said, by reluctantly making an online presence, I've met some really amazing fellow authors (not just SP authors either) who have done me more good with an offhand comment pointing me in the right direction than months of trial an error alone on my part. The wonderful thing about SP authors is that we're not zero sum, as in just because someone buys your book doesn't mean they won't buy mine. We're generally inexpensive enough that you can buy both (opposed to many trad publishers that artificially price their e-books at paperback prices and probably preclude additional sales), so we're quite happy to recommend and help each other when we discover something of quality. 

Because, like it or not, all self published books already have a brand, and it's "substandard." Due to the ease of access to self publishing, there's now a lot of crap out there audiences need to sift through to find the gems, which is a reason a lot of readers have just given up on self published books in general. So when a SP author does manage to gain some legitimacy in terms of quality, their endorsement means the world since their audience will generally treat that endorsed SP book with the same open mindedness they approached the original author's with. 

Anyways, I'm digressing, so I'll say my biggest takeaway is to learn the culture of whatever social media hangout you've found before saying anything. We all hate when door-to-door salesmen show up at our homes unbidden, so don't be the online equivalent by joining a group and then immediately promoting your work. Self publishing promotion is based on endorsements, which is to say personal relationships, rather than blaring your work loud as you can on multiple channels in an "accuracy by volume" approach. So when you find an appropriate group, watch it a while and figure out the mavens/ influencers and build a relationship with them. Then, once they know you, it's a lot easier to get them to check out your book and hopefully earn their endorsement. Because endorsements need to be earned. 

PL: Well said, and a shame that advice probably won't be seen by the people who need to hear it most. I'm not surprised to hear you spend a lot of time on the blogs either, you do great work there. Do you have a particular favourite type among the blogs that you do? My personal favourites are the Screenplay Techniques, but I feel like those might be the hard ones to do :P

MP: I was just thinking about the different blog types since I sort of have been blowing them off of late, and honestly, the screenplay techniques are the easiest since those are the ones I feel the most comfortable with. The Bugbear BBQ are probably the next easiest because charring meat has become second nature to me, and Odes pretty close behind because it's just something I think is cool that needs more attention. 

Worldbuilding is probably the most difficult in two senses. All the Payday Stories I'm doing within the world of Ayr are fun little asides, but writing in that myth/ fairy tale style is sort of difficult, even if they're only 6-800 words apiece. And, though it's not apparent yet, there's actually an overarching story behind all those myths that will come into play in book four. They're not required reading or anything, but they'll add a sort of macro subplot to the series that I sort of think of as grace-notes. In fact, this week I'm working on putting together a collection of all the Payday Stories that are referenced in books one and two to give away on the site. Another option I'm playing with is hiding hyperlinks to the stories within the text of the books themselves (e-books, obviously), so if you know what you're looking for, you'll be taken to the appropriate story. But, since no one actually reads these things but me, I may not go through with all that effort quite yet.

In the second sense worldbuilding takes some time is in the new series I'm starting up on my site. After receiving a few compliments on my world of Ayr, I've been studying it as a concept and have outlined a theory of my own that I want to start applying to the assessment of worldbuilding within the fantasy genre. Which is the other thing I should probably be working on right now. 

The Woven Ring - where it all began

PL: Well yeah, I should be working on something too, and instead I'm watching Canadiens vs the Sharks. I don't even really like either team, although the Sharks have some wicked good facial hair.

Going back to what you were saying about authors doing you good with an off-hand comment - what's the best piece of writing advice you've received? And since I have a morbid interest in this sort of thing, what's the worst?

MP: Best advice is actually hard. I am deeply indebted to Jo Zebedee for pointing me towards a few forums as well as being so gentle on my first guest blog. And also just flatly telling me something won't work when I put forth a bad idea. My blog arguing (blarguing?) partner Daniel Olesen seems to always find every new avenue first and then kindly shepherds me along after opening the door though I'm quite content to keep banging my head against the wall. 

You know, it's not writing advice per say, but I remember the producer to Sling Blade speaking one time about what it takes to make it. He basically said it's an endurance game as you wait for your opportunity. But once you recognize that opportunity, that window opening just a crack, you can't hesitate and HAVE to go for it without looking back. He actually financed Sling Blade with his credit cards, which he had a high limit on because he used them for work producing some forgettable TV show. Soon as he saw the short film that would become Sling Blade, he just went for it and maxed them all out, only to finally sell it for the highest amount an indie film ever sold for at the time.

Mind you, that story's only good in hindsight because it worked out. It would be a terrible tragedy if he put himself into crippling credit card debt for a movie that fell through.

Worst advice goes back to my very first screenplay ever, which was a vampire revenge flick taking place in a mall over Christmas. I was pitching it to some producers and one of them stopped me mid-plot point and said "that's not how vampires are." And just like that, the pitch was all over.  

I guess that last one wasn't really advice. But it still boils my blood to this day. 

PL: Dumb quotes are perfectly acceptable forms of bad writing advice for these interviews.

Do you ever think authors do themselves down by collaborating less than screenplay writers do? Also, has your writing process changed any from book 1 to book 2?

MP: Authors are an odd bunch to begin with, in that we rarely bunch up. Writing is often a solitary act, but in screenwriting you at least have a producer, agent, director, etc. giving you notes along the way. And as much as we complain about their notes, it's good to have constant feedback and know you're on the right track. The constraints the others put on us also make us think around problems a lot more, which keeps us honest. 

That said, I did flee screenwriting for self publishing because I was tired of writing what others want. 

My writing process has changed quite a bit from book one to book two in that I don't have 6-10 hours a day I can set aside and write anymore as I did with book one. Now if I get four hours of good writing in it's a red letter day (whatever that idiom means). So (if you go by the old physics FIT equation) my Time has dropped significantly, which means I have to up both my Frequency and Intensity. So, inspired or not, I sit down at the computer for a set number of hours per day and write like its my job. So instead of knocking out two chapters in a day, I'm now slowly chipping away at the books. But I do it everyday. 

PL: Final question - I don't know if you've come across the idea of writing a fan letter to yourself to establish what you really want your book to look like, or if you've done it - but what would you want that fan letter for The Imbued Switchblade to say?

MP: Man, that's hard. As in I don't think I'd write a fan letter to myself (or anyone, really). I cut my teeth in screenwriting years ago (more than I'd care to remember) by being a reader/ coverage writer for screenplays for a production company. And let me tell you, if you think that the movies that come out of Hollywood are terrible, you haven't seen the thousands upon thousands of submitted screenplays that never get made. They're terrible squared (which I guess means the system does sort of work when it comes to filtering out at least some of the crap). 

So, because all these scripts were so awful, yet I was reading several a week, I learned quite quickly what doesn't work in stories by seeing the same mistakes over and over again. I really think this helped me become a better writer (as in I'm tolerable), but since assessing unproduced screenplays sort of became my day job, it's also made me hyper critical. So much so, I can't really read or watch anything for enjoyment anymore. 

Which is the long way of me saying, I'd probably hate The Imbued Lockblade if I read it now. Because, like most authors, I'm my own worst critic: Each line I read is cliche in the extreme, every idea hackneyed and trite. In fact, that's my rule of thumb when it comes to editing: Read it through again and again, cleaning everything up until you swear the next time you see it your stomach might explode with hatred. When you're sure it's the worse thing that's ever been written and no one will every love you, then that means you're too close to it and it's time to get some perspective that only distance can provide. That's when I send it on to beta readers and don't look at it again for a long while. Usually several months in fact (though I've gone over a year on occasion), at which point I can read it with a bit more perspective and think to myself "hey, that's not too bad."

So really, I guess my fan letter would say something like, "good job, its not as bad as I expected." 

And yeah, that pretty much as positive as I can get about it right now, just days before its release.

This interview finished a fair while ago; the Imbued Lockblade is out now and available on Amazon US, Amazon UK and so on. To read his blog and find out more about his writing, visit https://www.mdpresley.com/

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